Jillian Hollingsworth paid a steep price to stay home while her children were young.
With no maternity leave plan at her job in South Carolina and the high cost of daycare, she had quit to stay home to take care of her babies. But, that job had provided health insurance for her whole family, so her husband, Wesley, found a new state government job that had health benefits. The only problem? It paid about half of what his previous job had, leaving them in a tough situation.
“Our financial situation just nose-dived,” says Hollingsworth.
“We were struggling. I mean, we had a mortgage, car payments, and student loans,” she continues.
But she knew the cost of daycare was too high (it would’ve sapped all the extra income she could have earned working) and she wanted to be there for her kids.
She wanted to be home with her children because she knew how important bonding with a parent can be for their development.
But after their second child was born, the couple learned they qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
For more than 50 years, SNAP has offered nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income families. It’s the largest national program to provide families support to put food on the table when they need it most.
Benefits used to come in the form of food stamps, but after 2004, recipients in all states could use an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card as part of this program. It looks just like a credit/debit card, which reduces fraud and provides more dignity and convenience to those it helps.
Jillian and Wesley were both college graduates, and had maintained regular employment, but they just couldn’t make ends meet after they had children.
“I don’t think anyone in our family has ever been on food assistance, but it’s not something we were ashamed of,” says Hollingsworth. “We were so thankful that program existed to help us.”
About 34% of South Carolina’s children received SNAP benefits in 2015, according to a 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Nationwide, in a typical month, SNAP helps feed 20 million children.
That’s one in four children in the United States.
SNAP is helping stabilize food-insecure households, which gives kids a better shot at a healthy, happy life. Food insecurity is about more than being hungry. Malnourishment can affect not only a child’s health, but school performance and behavior. That, in turn, can alter their chance at success later in life.
But, just by eating healthy, regular meals made possible by SNAP, kids are getting sick less often and doing better in school. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP participation can lead to gains in reading and math skills among elementary school children, especially young girls, and increase their chances of graduating from high school.
With help from SNAP, Hollingsworth could buy fresh, nutritious food for her children as she taught them to eat solid foods.
A bigger food budget meant better choices were available, not just $1 menu deals at fast-food joints, boxes of mac-n-cheese, and convenience-store grub.
Plus, many farmers markets now accept SNAP, making it even easier to get locally-sourced, fresh food. Between 2009 and 2015, the amount of SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets actually quadrupled, according to the Farmers Market Coalition.
And that’s great news for families like Hollingsworth’s.
It’s especially nice to have more options when you’re a family strapped for cash, she says, because that’s often not the case. You can feel pulled in all directions with limited resources to meet your family’s needs. But SNAP provides low-income families with benefits to buy food which frees up additional income to pay bills. Hollingsworth appreciated that priority.
Today, Hollingsworth and her husband no longer need SNAP to feed their children.
After all, they never meant for it to be a long-term solution, but it was there to help them when they needed it most.
SNAP is designed to be temporary, requiring a renewal process every three or six months.
While receiving SNAP and taking care of her babies, Hollingsworth baby-sat for other children and studied to be a doula. And once her studies were complete, she was able to increase her earning potential. Those efforts, plus her husband’s work promotion, enabled them to get off SNAP within a year and a half.
However, they’re forever grateful for how SNAP helped her family.
“SNAP was very helpful while we had it. It’s built into society to help people just like us. People think if you’re on government programs, you’re living beyond your means or you’re lazy. But that’s not the case,” says Hollingsworth. “My husband was working every day. We were working towards being in a position so I could work and be with my kids, and we did that.”
Today, they have three healthy, happy children, and Hollingsworth attributes some of that to SNAP’s role in their early growth.
The needs of many families like theirs, considered the “working poor,” fall through the cracks. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 8.6 million working poor Americans in 2015 — those who work hard but are still below the poverty line. Many don’t believe they can qualify for this resource until they get back on their feet.
SNAP is one of the simplest ways for food-insecure families to put healthy food back on the table. The more families who know about it, and learn how much it can help, the more children will grow up with brighter futures.